The Politics that Separated People from Jesus
Reading: John 6
The opening scene of John 6, the “feeding of the 5,000,” results in political unrest from which Jesus flees. Might this chapter have a message for believers today in our own season of political unrest? The people want to make Jesus king by force! Eating the loaves and fish, they realized that Jesus was the promised coming king. They want a revolution by which they could establish Jesus as King (John 6:13-15). Before the chapter is over, those same people leave Jesus in search of a better political arrangement! Why?
These people have one kind of politics and Jesus has another. They pursue Jesus thinking He will participate in their violent politics. When Jesus reveals what kind of king He really is, they want nothing to do with Him. They left Jesus over their politics!
What were the politics of the people? What were the politics of Jesus? Why did the people’s politics separate them from Jesus?
Why did the people’s politics separate them from Jesus?
John, an artistic and inspired writer, strokes his canvas with details to help us understand his point. The first detail that foreshadows what happens is that he mentions the other name for the Sea of Galilee: the Sea of Tiberias, being named after the Roman emperor who ruled during Jesus’ ministry (John 6:1). If one wrote today of an event that occurred near or in Trump tower, that name would carry a lot of freight.
Secondly, the whole feeding scene is bookended with Jesus going up on a mountain (John 6:3, 15). Mountains were used metaphorically in the Old Testament for kingdoms. God’s kingdom is like a rock that strikes the foot of the other kingdoms and grows into a mountain (Jer. 51:24-25; Dan. 2:35, 44-45).
John’s third brushstroke that highlights kingdom conflict is that he tells us it was the time of the Passover (John 6:4). Passover celebrates the liberation of God’s people from the oppressive power of a despotic ruler (Pharaoh). God against Pharaoh. Pharaoh exalted himself above God; God made Himself known to Pharaoh.
Each of these details points to a conflict of kingdoms. The people would have thought the conflict was between God’s people and Rome, the enemy. In John 6, it becomes clear that the conflict was their hearts’ rejection of Jesus and His ways! They had politics of violence and force.
The people had politics of violence and force.
When the people saw Jesus feed the 5,000 with only five loaves and two fish, to them it was a sign. It signified that Jesus was the “Prophet coming into the world.” This was the one “like Moses” who would come; the messiah (Deut. 18:15). Given their misconceptions about how God’s kingdom works, the logical thing to do was to make Jesus king by force. Jesus would have nothing to do with that; it conflicted with His kingdom.
The next morning, the people realize that Jesus is gone. They still want Jesus to be their king. They’re hungry again and need to be fed. Isn’t that what good kings do? They take care of us. They give us bread! Even emperors knew they had to keep the masses satisfied to remain in power, but none of them could feed 5,000 in a wilderness the way Jesus did.
Conveniently (and another brush stroke from John), “boats from Tiberias,” arrived (John 6:23). The town Tiberias, like the sea, was named after the “rival king” to God’s king. The people are brought to Jesus in boats representing an earthly empire. They are seeking Jesus so He might do what they want by any means available.
When they arrive in Capernaum, Jesus abruptly informs them that they are seeking Him for all the wrong reasons. They are seeking bread that perishes; He declares that He Himself is the true bread from heaven (John 6:25-33). They want Jesus to be king for all the wrong reasons! They also want Jesus to be king in all the wrong ways!
They are seeking Jesus so He might do what they want by any means available.
When the people finally find Jesus, they were still curious how he had gotten there but Jesus does not satisfy their curiosity. He rebukes them for their motivations. This leads them to asking a much better question: “What must we do to work the works of God?” (John 6:28, lit.). In light of the context, we might paraphrase their question:
“Obviously, making you King by force wasn’t what you were interested in, so what is it? How do we enter into your Messianic Kingdom? What job descriptions are available for us in Your kingdom? What are you asking of us?”
“Jesus answered, ‘The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent’” (John 6:29). Believe in Jesus? Yes, but possibly more. The Greek word for “believe” in some cases might better be translated “loyalty, or allegiance.” “Swear allegiance to the One He has sent!” If so, Jesus is saying,
“It’s not about insurrection with swords and knives, it’s about complete loyalty, belief in, and allegiance to me and what I say. Got it?”
Now that Jesus is talking about more than His feeding them whenever they are hungry, they demand a sign. In essence, “You want allegiance, total commitment? We need a sign” (John 6:30). Yesterday they were willing to shed their blood for him; now they need a sign. Why? Because Jesus doesn’t do things in the way they are used to!
Jesus then claims to be the bread that comes from heaven and gives life to the world. They were seeking Him for more bread; He offers them real bread. They were willing to die for the bread they had the day before (that often happens when making someone king by force); now they are grumbling against Him and begin arguing vehemently with each other (John 6:41, 52). Trying to line Jesus up with our earthly politics always leads to division!
Trying to line Jesus up with our earthly politics always leads to division!
Then Jesus gets right to the point. “Unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood, you have no life in you.” Jesus says this about every way He can (John 6:53-59) and many of them walked away saying, “Who can accept this?” (John 6:60). Why was this so hard for them?
They were offended at the cannibalistic nature of Jesus’ statement, no doubt, but not in the way we think. Since about the 8th century before Christ and until long after Christ, the idea of cannibalism (eating flesh and drinking blood) was a metaphor for violence, war, and insurrection. In fact, it is still used today when a leader is described as “bloodthirsty.” It means they are either eager to shed blood or they encourage bloodshed and violence.
In the Roman world, insurrectionists were described as cannibals who fed on the people. Jesus fled from them when they were willing to lay down their lives in a violent revolution on His behalf. Jesus’ kingship is one in which He lays down His life. The only feeding in His kingdom will be feeding on His flesh and shed blood. He is quite the opposite of Tiberias!
The Son has life in Himself and lays it down. If we want the life of His reign, we must have allegiance to Him and His ways. His ways are ways of self-sacrifice, even for our enemies. Jesus’ followers are indeed called to lay down their lives, but not to keep Him in power in a fleshly war, but by becoming like Him and laying down our lives for others. Jesus has a politics of self-giving.
Jesus has a politics of self-giving.
It is not uncommon today to find “under-shepherds” who enrich themselves on the people (feed on them). Some feed off their flock in such a way that “cannibalistic” may be the best description. They are more loyal to Caesar and his ways, than Jesus and His.
What dangers do believers face today in our nation’s current political turmoil? Are we tempted to make Jesus king by force through our politics? There were some, last week, who wanted to keep someone president by force, and some that I’ve talked to would do it in the name of God. Are we any better than those who wanted to make Jesus king by force? Don’t Christians on both sides believe they are doing God’s will? Both are often willing to forsake the ways of Jesus to accomplish their political goals.
The Gospel calls us to nothing less than total allegiance to Jesus and His ways. Jesus addresses our tendency to violence, calling us to peacemaking. He also addresses our tendency to anger and outbursts of rage on social media or in person. He requires us to remain humble and loving. When our politics separate us from one another, they have separated us from Jesus!
When our politics separate us from one another, they have separated us from Jesus!
May we, in allegiance to Jesus, feed on Him and set a table for others to come and feed on the bread from heaven that gives life to the world (John 6:33). This will require that we stop trying to make Jesus king by force! Are we wiling to stay with Jesus on His terms, following His ways?
Love the Gospel, Live the Gospel, Advance the Gospel,
 Matthew Bates, Salvation by Allegiance Alone